Now that was a surprising win.
No, I’m not talking about any plot element in “Cars 3.” I’m talking about the fact I genuinely enjoyed it.
Given my relatively mild affection for the entertaining but not particularly special “Cars” (2006) and my disdain for the curiously convoluted and uninvolving “Cars 2” (2011), I didn’t think the franchise had any gas left in the tank. and I was surprised there was even going to be a three-quel.
Even more surprising, and delightfully so: “Cars 3” is a lovely, clever and entertaining generational tale with tons of heart, a simple and effective storyline, wonderful candy-colored visuals and winning voice work from the talented cast of returning regulars and welcome newcomers.
Owen Wilson brings his familiar laid-back drawl to Lightning McQueen, who has achieved legendary status as the undisputed king of the Piston Cup stock car circuit. Lightning racks up win after win on the circuit, routinely besting his peers — until the arrival of the new breed of high-tech, scientifically engineered racers, led by the black-painted Jackson Storm (Armie Hammer), a cocky racing machine that can hit speeds of 200 mph and above, surpassing anything the old-school Lightning has ever achieved.
How about a little refresher on the career of Lightning McQueen? With the help of his loyal friends, his wonderful girlfriend (car friend?) Sal (Bonnie Hunt) and of course his crusty but lovable mentor Doc Hudson (the late Paul Newman), Lightning became a champion thanks to his heart as much as his skill set. But now Doc is gone, and Lightning is an aging lion, and the new breed might just be too fast, too strong and too ruthless for him.
Is this the end of Lightning McQueen? Also, has anyone else noticed this is basically the same setup we got in “Rocky III”?
Lightning is given one last shot at the big time, courtesy of his new sponsor, Sterling (a fantastically entertaining Nathan Fillion), a billionaire who has built a state-of-the-art training facility. Sterling’s actually more interested in Lightning as a brand to sell dozens of products (nice sense of humor there, Pixar!) than as a racer, but he agrees to fund Lightning’s quest to return to racing, with one caveat: If Lightning doesn’t win, he has to retire and become a full-time shill for Sterling’s vast line of mud flaps and other car-related items.
First-time feature director Brian Fee (a former Pixar storyboard artist) does a fine job of filling the screen with eye-popping animation and moving the story along — through the training sequences and a detour to a demolition derby might have benefited from just a bit tighter editing.
Much of “Cars 3” is about the passing of the torch, and the protégé becoming the mentor. The Doc Hudson character voiced by the great Paul Newman (who passed away in 2008) actually has a fairly substantial role in flashbacks and flights-of-imagination sequences. (When John Lasseter was filming the first “Cars,” he reportedly recorded hours upon hours of audio of Newman, including outtakes and off-the-cuff stories. Some of those lines were re-purposed for “Cars 3.”)
Meanwhile, Lightning comes to realize his spunky trainer Cruz (Cristela Alonzo, very nice work) might have some untapped potential of her own as a racer. He also relies on Doc’s old pal Smokey (a perfectly voice-cast Chris Cooper) for some pearls of wisdom.
The mild satire of sports media coverage is spot-on, from the ubiquitous Bob Costas as “Bob Cutlass” and racing great and well-known NASCAR broadcaster Darrell Waltrip as “Darrel Cartrip” to Kerry Washington as “Natalie Certain,” an analyst who crunches the numbers and delivers precise percentage probabilities for various contenders (just like you see on ESPN these days, e.g., “Warriors: 93.4 percent likelihood of wrapping up the NBA Finals tonight”).
I still say “Cars” is the most difficult of all the Pixar staples to embrace. There’s only so much animation you can get out of motor vehicles, with their talking grilles and the eyeballs in the windshield, as opposed to toys that come to life, or an old man with a square head, or adorable fishies in the sea, or human-like creatures running around in an 11-year-old girl’s head.
Maybe it’s not entirely fair to pit one Pixar franchise against others — but that’s what happens when you create such an iconic roster of animated classics and near-classics.
Credit this group of cars, trucks, tractors, forklifts, et al., for being about as likable as can be.
I just don’t think we’re ever going to love them the way we love Nemo.
Disney-Pixar presents a film directed by Brian Fee and written by Bob Peterson, Mike Rich and Kiel Murray. Rated G. Running time: 100 minutes. Opens Friday at local theaters.